In 1981, Mary Steenburgen won the best supporting actress Oscar for “Melvin and Howard.” On Monday, she will find out if she’s earned her second-ever Academy Award nomination, in a very different category: best original song. “Glasgow (No Place Like Home),” which she wrote with Caitlyn Smith and Kate York for the music drama “Wild Rose,” made the shortlist of potential nominees.
“I won’t lie — it was amazing,” Steenburgen said about receiving that news.
The achievement is especially remarkable considering she took up songwriting relatively late in life, under what even she calls “strange” circumstances. Twelve years ago, she woke up after minor arm surgery and felt like her thoughts had turned into music. “I don’t know how to explain what happened to me,” she said. “All I can say is music came into my life. I think something during the surgery opened up a little part of my brain that I just hadn’t felt before.”
Steenburgen, 66, who’s married to Ted Danson, spoke about the musical detour her life has taken in a recent telephone interview. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
How did you get involved with “Wild Rose”?
For a number of years, I’ve been writing for Universal in Nashville. They put out calls about which films are looking for songs. I heard about this one, and it sounded intriguing. My manager got the script for me, which was super helpful. I realized the song wasn’t just going to play over the end credits. It was much more pivotal.
Jessie Buckley’s title character, a Scottish singer-songwriter who’s traveled to Nashville in search of stardom and come back to her hometown, performs it at the film’s emotional climax. How did you channel the spirit of Glasgow?
I haven’t spent a lot of time there, but I called one of our dearest friends, who was raised in Glasgow, and asked her to talk to me about it. She was our nanny and lived with our family for 18 years, so she’s like a sister to me. Her family’s stories about Glasgow are a huge part of my life and my children’s lives.
Is the song’s title an intentional homage to “The Wizard of Oz”?
Yes. The character had spent so much time focusing on Oz, which is Nashville. She had not looked around at where she came from and what it had given her. You can be so focused on the golden thing that’s in front of you that you don’t look around and see you’re already there.
Does that idea resonate with you personally?
It does. As a young actor in New York, I was a waitress for six and a half years, and I remember thinking, “You can’t just be focused on life beginning when you’re successful.” This theme of dreams and goals and noticing where you’re at has been a constant in my life. Our business can be very distracting.
It must have been disorienting to win an Oscar for only your third film. What’s your most vivid memory of that night?
Truthfully, I was a young mother who had never left her baby before, and I remember being very freaked out that I would need to nurse her. I also really needed to thank a number of people, like Jack Nicholson, who was my first director and leading man, in “Goin’ South.” He had been incredibly good to me. I also needed to thank my teacher Sandy Meisner and Jonathan Demme, whom I adored, and who directed “Melvin and Howard.” A lot of what I remember about that night is thinking, “Don’t cry, and make sure you thank them.”
Is it hard to believe that was nearly 40 years ago?
It is. It’s been a long time since I’ve actually won any awards, but I’ve worked a lot [she’s now appearing in the NBC show “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist”], and I’ve had to learn to make the joy of work, whether it’s acting or music, be my own reward. Songwriting is not a vanity thing or passing fancy for me. It’s something I’ve done extremely quietly and consistently for 12 years, and I’ve earned my right to be here. Now, do I still have a million miles to go? Yes. But I’m getting better.
How does it feel to be taking on a new challenge at this stage of your life?
To say yes to something brand-new when you’re not young is a really interesting thing to do. Our society doesn’t encourage that. You’re encouraged to try new things when you’re young, and then nobody says that to you anymore at a certain age. I did get a little pushback. People said, “You already have a career. Why are you doing this?” Because my heart is desiring it so fiercely I can’t ignore it. If you’re lucky enough to be alive, why would you creatively kill yourself off? Why not say yes to all of it at any age?